The garlic from Dad’s Caesar salad clings to my breath and burns my eyes as I hide away under this stifling blanket.
Crap. I should’ve brushed my teeth. Why didn’t I think about brushing my teeth?
I rack my brain trying to remember where I might have put a pack of gum or a Tic Tac, or God, even one of those disgusting cough drops. But my mind comes up blank.
My chest burns, forcing me to do some of those short, panicky breaths dogs do when they first show up at the vet. It’s been forever since I’ve taken a fresh breath of air. All I want to do is toss these suffocating blankets off me and smooth the frizzy mane my hair has become. But I’m paralyzed, terrified someone will barge in without knocking and my nightly rendezvous with Marcus won’t be able to continue.
In one desperate move, I pop my face out of the covers and gulp in air like it’s water from an oasis.
Sweet, sweet oxygen!
My brain starts functioning again and has a chance to fantasize about what’s about to take place. How thrilling it’s going to be to see his face again…to kiss those lips, press my body against his. The deceit… The sneaking out… I’m not going to lie. It makes this all feel so…so…badass. And lately, well lately, I’ve enjoyed a bit of badass.
As if he knows right this second that I’m thinking about him, there’s a buzz in the pocket of my jeans, and it sends a deeper buzz through the rest of my body.
Without rustling the covers, I carefully slide my hand under my butt and pry my phone out without allowing my bed to creak and groan. The screen lights up and buzzes again, making me smile with what’s written. It’s from Marcus.
You coming? I’m already here. Can’t wait to see you. Brought a little treat for us too.
He sends an emoji of two people kissing, followed by a leaf emoji. Meaning he’s brought a joint, but I giggle because it looks like he’s brought us a salad. Is there a weed emoji? Probably better he didn’t use that anyway, just in case Mom and Dad ever creep on my phone. No one can get in trouble for sneaking out to eat a salad.
I expertly navigate the screen with my thumb as I text him back underneath the covers.
Yeah, I think they’re both asleep. Coming now. Can’t wait to see you too—and eat salad with you lol.
In one swift movement, I throw the covers off and roll over to sit up. As I stand, I reach around to return my phone to the back pocket of my jeans, but it slips through my hand and lands with a crash on the hardwood floor.
I’m not sure whether it’s loud enough for my parents to hear. I still my body and hold my breath one more time, listening for any sign of footsteps through the hall.
I’m sleepwalking. That’s what I’ll tell them. Yeah, if they ask, I’ll just mumble something incoherent about algebra, then wander back to bed, pretending not to remember in the morning. I might have a tough time explaining why I’m sleeping in jeans and a T-shirt, but whatever. It’s not like I can get in trouble for sleepwalking. I mean, how could I get in trouble for something I don’t even remember?
I wait for a few more seconds, then exhale a slow and relieved breath, because all is silent other than the faint sh…sh…sh…of my dad’s CPAP machine in the other room. Alleluia for sleep apnea! It has made this whole sneaking out thing way easier. The only downside is that Mom has recently made the spare bedroom on the main floor her own personal refuge. She claimed Dad was just too noisy to sleep beside, which was weird at first. He used to snore louder than a train whistle before the machine, and she didn’t seem to have a problem with it then.
But when I started questioning why they were sleeping in separate rooms, it got me thinking about Tamara Lindsay. Poor Tamara Lindsay, who accidentally walked in on her parents in a very compromising position—position number 69 if we want to get real about it. And now Tamara is damaged for life. Seriously. The details Tamara gave? No one needs to see their parents doing that.
So, I figured whatever. If Mom and Dad no longer want to sleep together, it just means that at least I won’t ever have to worry about walking in on things Moms and Dads should not be allowed to do. What it does mean is that I have to be a little more careful about creeping past Mom’s bedroom downstairs.
I crane my head toward my bedroom door and don’t hear any footsteps coming up the stairs. I’m positive Mom is asleep by now.
I peer at the clock as I reach down to retrieve my phone.
Yeah, they’ve both got to be asleep for sure.
My jacket is draped over one arm, and I hold my pair of red Converse with my other hand as I inch my way across my room. I open the door soundlessly, grateful that I convinced Dad to fix the creak in it last weekend. After a quick glance across the hall and into the front room, I gently close the door behind me and tiptoe all the way down the stairs, making sure to skip the step third from the bottom because of the groan it makes. My heart gallops like a racehorse the whole way. I’m convinced Mom and Dad are going to barge out of their rooms any second to pounce on me.
But somehow I slide past Mom’s bedroom without incident and make it to the back patio door. I don’t dare creep out through the garage or the front door. That would basically be suicide. But the patio door is quiet, discreet and leads to a perfect escape route just left of the house. There’s a large pine tree there, wedged between the fence and the shed. It creates cover and forms a darkened shadow, despite the glare of the porch light that is always left on. All I need to do is inch my way down the length of the shadow, all the way to the far corner of the yard. The fence is old and needs to be rebuilt, and sharp slivers dig into my bare arms as I slide along it. But I’m eternally thankful for my parents’ procrastination in fixing it so my nightly escapades can continue.
Once I reach the end of the yard, I pry loose the third board from the left, the one I wedged back in last night. I lean it against the neighboring boards and squeeze myself through the ten-inch gap in the fence.
Crap, my T-shirt snags on a rough edge of wood as I squeeze through, and I swear under my breath. I just paid full price for it at H&M. Oh well, this is worth it—totally worth it.
The entire world belongs to me as I race through the back alley, the glow of streetlights chasing me as I run. There’s a crispness in the air—a sure sign of autumn’s impending arrival—but that’s not the reason for the outbreak of goosebumps all over my arms. Every inch of my skin tingles, and my heart races from exertion and anticipation. I don’t slow until I reach the chain link fence enclosing the park of the elementary school down the street.
It’s here that I slow to a walk, because, well, it’s not like I want him thinking I’m this excited. No, I’ve got to play it cool. I let my breathing slow, slip my jacket on as an attempt at camouflaging all those goosebumps and make my way through the gate of the playground.
He sways gently on the tire swing, a beautiful human pendulum with ripped jeans and scruffy blond hair. His sneakers brush the sand with each pass and the chain croaks with his weight. He doesn’t see me. He doesn’t sense that I’m there. And I love the element of surprise, my growing sense of urgency. I quicken to a run the last few steps, kicking sand up as I go. I reach my arms around him from behind, his delicious boy-smell filling my nostrils as I press my face into his neck.
“Guess who?” I whisper into his ear.
“I hope it’s who I think it is or this is gonna be super-awkward.” He doesn’t turn as he says it, causing me to doubt my confidence just a bit. Then he reaches around smoothly, pulling me onto his lap and swiveling me around so our faces are just inches apart. “Oh, good, just the person I was hoping it would be.” And that mischievous smile of his is irresistible once again. I can’t help but reach up to pull his lips down to mine, our bodies a jumble of arms and legs jutting from the hanging tire.
Eventually, we untangle our entwined bodies and trade the tire swing for a picnic table. We stretch out and light a joint, the glowing embers twinkling like one of the distant stars hanging in the night sky.
“I remember when I first saw you at the mall that day, at the beginning of summer. You were all shy and quiet, like you didn’t even want to be noticed. How could you ever think you’d just blend in?” He nudges my shoulder playfully as he takes a long toke, then passes the joint to me.
I inhale deeply, then roll over onto my back, tilting my face up to the black, velvety canopy of sky. “I don’t know, Marcus. I just thought you were into Maggie. Everyone is—and that’s fine by me. I mean, she’s my best friend for a reason. It’s because she’s awesome. If I were into girls, I think I’d be after Maggie too.” I giggle and pass the joint back to him.
“Yeah, Maggie’s great, but…I don’t know. You were the one who caught my attention. It’s like you don’t need to try so hard, like you have a quiet confidence that she doesn’t. Not everything needs to revolve around you all the time. What you show the world is the real you. And I, for one, really like it.” Marcus leans over to give me a soft kiss on the lips.
“I just can’t believe we’ve only been together for a little over a month. I never thought when I saw you that day, that it would actually turn into something. You were all—I don’t know—cute and cool… It just sucks we don’t go to the same school. I mean, what’s going to happen in a couple of weeks when school starts? How are we going to keep this going?”
“Trust me. We’ll find a way…” The words drip off his tongue, slow and sticky like honey, and he leans in to start nibbling my neck. He drapes his right leg over mine and scoots in closer, so our bodies are flush. Then he inches his fingers just under the hem of my T-shirt, so his palm lies flat on my stomach. It sends an electric buzz through my entire body, but nagging thoughts in the back of my mind dull the feeling.
“But seriously, what’s our plan? It’s our senior year. I’ll be super-swamped with the swim club, and you said you’re hoping to be captain of your school’s hockey team this year. Plus, my parents are totally going to be on top of me when it comes to my grades. They’re really pushing for me to get into a good college. I don’t know… I just worry that we’re going to fizzle out, that this is just a summer thing.” The word ‘summer’ comes out sharp and thorny, scratching the back of my throat.
“Relax, Jess. Things have a way of working out. Let’s just enjoy the time we have together now and think about the future tomorrow.” He continues his trail of kisses, his fingers creeping up to my ribcage. “This has been the best part of summer, and summer’s not over yet.”
My skin melts wherever his fingers touch, turning me into a swirling palette of watercolor, the tones becoming more vibrant with each of his breaths on my neck, each of his kisses on my lips. I push the nagging feeling of summer’s end to the back of my mind and enjoy the pleasures of right now.
Eventually I nudge Marcus away, realizing I’ve been gone way too long. Sneaking back into the house is always the worst part of the night, and the closer we are to morning, the more likely it is my parents will wake up with the tiniest of noises. Dealing with an intense grilling session about my whereabouts is not how I want this night to end.
“So, I’ll see you this week sometime? Maybe you can come by when my parents are at work?” I ask.
“Uh, yeah, sure. Sounds good. I’ve got nothing going on this week.” The indifference in his words stings. He obviously doesn’t feel my same sense of urgency. He tugs on his sweatshirt, then tilts his face down to give me one more quick kiss on the mouth. “I know how you get all up in your head about stuff, but let’s just try to enjoy the end of the summer, okay? We’ll worry about the rest when we need to.”
I give him a slight nod and a weak smile, but I don’t feel his confidence. The uncertainty of the changing seasons sparks an uncertainty about us. The phrase ‘summer fling’ flits around in my brain like a frightened sparrow, and I can’t seem to catch it and tuck it away.
“Okay, so I’ll text you later in the week then.” He squeezes my hand as he takes a step backward. “I promise, things will work out. Stop stressing!” he calls, readjusting his cap and shuffling back the opposite way through the field. I feel a stab of hurt about the casualness of his goodbye, but I force my mind to replay every delicious moment prior to that, until the tingling in my body convinces me all’s right with the world.
My solo walks home after my secret rendezvous with Marcus always have me feeling giddy and lightheaded, but today’s race home feels extra wobbly, due to the slight buzz I got from the joint. I’m lost in my thoughts as I slide the patio door open and have almost made it past the kitchen island when my name slices through the silence.
“Jess, sit down. We need to talk.”
Crap, crap, crap! I glance at the clock on the microwave.
Two forty-three a.m.
My brain races through a thousand lies I could come up with to try to squirm out of this situation.
“Uh, sorry, Mom. I had a coffee after dinner last night and I think it caused insomnia. I thought taking a walk in the brisk air might help me to fall back—”
“No, Jess, this isn’t about you out in the middle of the night, although we’ll get to that. I’ve had insomnia myself over the last little while, and I just can’t take it anymore. I know this isn’t the best time for either of us to talk, but I’m not sure I’ll have the same confidence if I wait until morning.”
I avoid Mom’s heavy gaze and brace myself for the lecture of a lifetime. But it doesn’t come.
“Jess, please sit down.” Her words come out soft and hesitant, almost apologetic.
I double-check the time on the clock in case I’ve got things all wrong and it’s much earlier than I think. But no, it is clearly the middle of the night, and my sly attempt at sneaking back in seems to be the last thing on my mother’s mind.
I steal a glance at her and notice, for the first time, her red-rimmed and puffy eyes, and how her ragged robe, cinched tight at the waist, makes her look gaunt, almost child-like. When did Mom lose so much weight? Her hands, pale and thin, tremble so badly that she keeps pressing them together, almost as if in prayer.
I reluctantly shuffle over to the kitchen table and plunk down on one of the chairs, my head swimming, my eyes probably bloodshot. Suddenly, I’m very confused, remnants of the weed pulsing through my veins and making my thoughts patchy, disconnected. The only other time I’ve seen Mom looking this lost and broken was years ago, when my grandfather died. A flurry of names and faces fly through my head. Who in my life could have possibly met with a terrible fate? Is it Dad? Is it Gran?
There’s electricity in the air like right before a violent summer storm. I can’t help but wonder what kind of damage it’s going to cause. I reach my hand out to hers, trying to anchor the two of us to the kitchen table to calm her fraying nerves. Anxiety and trepidation swirl around us.
“Mom, what’s going on? You’re scaring me.”
“Jess…” She breathes my name out with an exhausted sigh. The red rims of her eyes glisten with tears that are ready to spill. She pulls her hand away from mine, immediately creating a space between us.
Oh my God, it’s my mom. My mom. She’s the one who’s sick or dying, or whatever this is about. That explains the trembling, the loss of weight, the fact that she’s so rail-thin right now that her left hand is even devoid of her wedding ring.
“Mom, what happened? Are you sick? Is it cancer? How long have you known?” I close my eyes tight and hold in a breath, like shuttering a home right before the first surge of a hurricane. It seems that by locking myself down for a moment, I’m better able to brace myself for this impending doom.
“No, Jess, I’m not sick. It’s not that. God, no, I’m fine.”
The air starts escaping my lungs like a slow leak in a tire. I snap my eyes open because it’s going to be okay. Mom is fine. She’s okay. There’s still a question of what the hell is going on, but it can’t be worse than that. It surely can’t be worse than that.
Mom breathes in like she’s about to dive to the bottom of the pool, then spews poison through her mouth, her words burning me to the ground. “I’ve met someone else—another man.” She pauses, looking down at her hands that are folded in her lap, as if they give her the cues for what to say next. Then she looks back up at me. And with her eyes and her words, she causes a black hole to implode my insides. “He and I…well…we’re expecting a baby. I’m leaving your father.”
The storm finally surges, a tornado of feelings threatening to carry me away.
“What the hell are you talking about?” is all I manage. My throat starts closing up as if the moisture from it has been sponged dry and I’ve been left with a pasty scum covering the inside of my mouth.
I don’t know what she’s talking about. Did I hear things right? I thought something bad had happened to someone else, not to me. I was just consoling my mother, for God’s sake! I’m having a hard time comprehending how the last five minutes have unraveled so disastrously that I find myself begging to go back to the simple horror of being caught sneaking out with a boy.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I know I shouldn’t have lied about where I was. I wasn’t out for a brisk walk. I was meeting a friend—my boyfriend, actually. His name is Marcus, and you’ll really like him, I think. I can bring him by the house so you and Dad can meet him and—”
“Jess, I don’t care about your lies or being with a boy. Well, not right now at least. We need to talk. What I’m telling you is real, and it’s important. Please listen to me.”
But the words coming out of her mouth are flat and tinny, like they’re being broadcast from an old-fashioned radio. I work to grasp the meaning of what she’s saying, but I only catch random phrases, and it’s like I’m trying to put together a puzzle without being able to look at the picture on the box.
“We’ve worked together for a long time and have grown very close over the years.”
“Your dad and I have been leading separate lives for a while now, and we both knew this was coming. It would have ended years ago if it weren’t for you holding us together.”
“The baby wasn’t planned, but Robert and I see now what a gift it’ll be. It’ll allow us all a new start. You’ll be a big sister, just like you’ve always dreamed!”
And that’s when the fireballs start spewing from my mouth, like when I get the stomach flu and can’t stop puking. Swear words, accusations, questions—they all just shoot out of me faster and louder, until I can’t even keep track of what I’m saying.
“What the hell do you mean, Mom? This doesn’t make any sense. You’re having a baby? You’ve been having an affair? Like, with another man? What about Dad? What about me?”
“I didn’t plan for this, Jess. Your dad and me? Well, we’ve just sort of drifted apart. It has nothing to do with you. We just want different things out of our marriage right now.”
When she mentions Dad, I suddenly remember that he’s the other person in this messed-up family. Where’s Dad? I suddenly need him urgently, as if his presence might dampen the blow that just hit me.
“Dad? Dad?” I scream at the top of my lungs. Immediately, I see movement on the stairs, like he’s been waiting in the wings to be called in. He rushes over to me, dressed in his plaid pajamas and a robe identical to my mother’s—a present from me two Christmases ago, when I thought it would be cute for them to be the same, to be a matching pair. I catch a whiff of whiskey on his breath as he tries to embrace me in a hug, and for some reason, this only heightens the anger inside me.
“How long have you known about this?” I push away from him and scowl.
“Jess, calm down and we’ll talk this through.” He takes a deep breath. “I found out about the affair around a month and a half ago, near the start of the summer. And I was angry…so angry.” He wipes the palms of his hands down his face, pulling at the sagging skin as he does. “But your mother and I have been together for almost twenty years, so at first we tried to work things out. We really did try.” He meets my gaze with pleading eyes. “But, ultimately, it’s not what either of us wants anymore.
“Then last week, when your mother told me about the pregnancy, well…” He takes a deep breath and swallows hard, his face suddenly turning steely. “Obviously, that means we’re done for good.” It’s only now that my dad’s voice takes on a razor-sharp edge.
“Your mother wasn’t supposed to tell you until tomorrow. She was going to take you out to lunch, where you’d be able to talk things through in a little more detail. But apparently”—he glares at her with an icy stare— “she couldn’t wait and decided to spring this on you in the middle of the night. Your mother always did have a knack for the dramatic.” Bitter sarcasm drips off every word. “But, now that you know, I suppose it’s best if we all sit down and discuss this as a family.”
I find his choice of the word family a bit sardonic, and I glare angrily at him. He ignores my rigid body language and comes close to me again, attempting to hold me, hug me…but I feel like I’m suffocating in the velvety folds of his robe, and I thrash him away once more.
That’s when he moves away from me and goes to stand with her.
“Jess, I know this is a lot to take in, especially all of a sudden, in the middle of the night. Your mom and I haven’t been happy for a long time. We’ve grown apart. Did I want this to happen? No. Did I know she’d fallen in love with Robert from payroll? No. But I’ve also had time to reflect on the fact that I’m not blameless in all of this. And I guess I should’ve fought a little harder a whole lot earlier on.
“But in truth, neither one of us really wants this anymore. So…yes. Your mom is moving out to be with Robert. And we all need to discuss some options with you. Things are going to change. We think for the better, although we know this initial shock is going to be really hard for you. But you need to know how much we love you. Both of us.”
I can’t believe my ears. How on earth can he defend her right now, after what she’s just admitted?
I don’t dare glance over at my mother or I run the risk of poking her eyes out. In the back of my mind, I keep thinking that God is punishing me. I knew all the lying and sneaking around would catch up to me, and somehow, I would be punished. I just didn’t think it would be like this.
I stand paralyzed in the middle of the kitchen for a few more moments, because really, I don’t know where to go. The clock on the microwave now reads nearly three a.m. and I have a hard time believing that my life has completely turned upside-down in less than a half-hour. Less than the equivalent of one single episode of The Simpsons has erased the entire world I live in.
I push past my parents and through the front door. I’m so eager to get away from the house that I stumble over my own feet as I race down the driveway and catch myself before completely falling on my face. Then I run. I run and I run and I don’t feel my legs reaching or my arms pumping, but I have this crazy idea that if I move fast enough, I’ll break away from the nightmare my life has just become.
Several minutes later, I become vaguely aware that the pavement beneath my feet has transformed to silky sand, and I find myself flopping into the rusty tire swing that held so much excitement just a few hours before.
Divorce? A new baby? I plant the toes of my right sneaker in the dimple of wet sand directly beneath the swinging tire and use the rest of my body weight to twist the chain around and around. The tension grows and the tire creeps higher and higher until my toe can’t anchor my body any further, spinning me recklessly out of control as the heavy night air whips by around me.